The obedience of the star calls us to imitate its humble service: to be servants, as best we can, of the grace that invites all men to find Christ.
Today the Church solemnizes the Lord’s Epiphany, a feast to which we lovingly refer as “little Christmas.” The word “epiphany” means “manifestation;” in fact, the Greek word from which it derives (epiphaneia) is used in the Bible to refer to moments when the YHWH, the God of Israel, manifests Himself to His people. The manifestation that concerns us today occurred when the Magi from the east came to Palestine seeking a newborn Jewish king, and found a little boy-child with His Mother in a little town in a forgotten little corner of the world. Today we remember, we celebrate, and we believe in that first time that the God of Israel manifested Himself to the Gentiles (non-Jews), signaling the beginning of the time when the peoples of all nations would seek Him out.
These wise men were guided, famously, by a star that appeared prominently in the night sky and went ahead of them as they journeyed until it came to a stop over the place where the newborn King was. And yet it was something of a discreet phenomenon, as those in power in Judea had to be told when the star appeared and what it was thought to indicate. So the star was at once something very significant to those who knew what to look for, yet very easily missed by those who weren’t looking for it. Much energy has been spent and ink spilled over the last two millennia regarding what astronomical event the star could have been. It has been a comet; it has been Jupiter moving in and out of retrograde around Regulus; it has been a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus. And all this depending on whether a copyist’s error in the 16th century A.D. indicates that Herod the Great died in 1 B.C. instead of 4 B.C., which changes what’s going on in the night sky. The mystery of the star and what it could possibly have been has fascinated the Western world almost as much as the mystery of the Incarnation itself, perhaps even more so with the advent of computers and modern astronomy.
To me, determining just what was going on in the skies during that time 2000 years ago that has entered popular consciousness as the “Star of Bethlehem” is a delightful intellectual exercise, but focusing on it that way entirely misses the point. The important thing is not what the star was, but why it was. At the start of this little Christmas diatribe I quoted Pope Saint Leo I the Great, who one of his sermons on the Feast of the Epiphany commented on the “obedience” of the star. Like all other things in the cosmos this star was created by God, and like all created things it was created to serve a purpose. In this case, the purpose of the star was to lead the Magi to the newborn King, to lead the Gentiles to the incarnate God – and it did so in obedience to the will of its Maker. It is this obedient service, Pope Leo says, that should be our model: we should all adopt a spirit of obedience and a zeal for service, such that like the star we can lead others to God.
Pope Benedict XVI, commenting on the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection as the two great cornerstones of the faith, wrote that “[i]f God does not also have power over matter, then he simply is not God.” And he meant that God’s creative power, his ability to make something new, does not end where the material world begins, and we can trust that, since His Word is the source of the cosmic order, what He creates will never be nonsensical or inherently contradictory. This same logic, I think, applies to the mysterious Star of Bethlehem. It shone in the night as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles;” it served to lead people seeking a king to find One. And it did so in such a way that its light was apparent to those who were curious enough to be led, and humble enough to be of service themselves. May we always retain that childlike sense of curiosity and couple it with a mature sense of service. “And by the light of that same star,” may we always come back to this time of year, maybe bringing a new friend or two with us, ready to be led to God.
Happy Little Christmas!